Some 50,000 art thefts are reported each year and nearly all involve organized criminals. The majority of works are never found, but an Italian organization has sent out a plea for a painting stolen over 40 years ago.
Ludovico Gippetto gazes at a masterpiece by the Renaissance painter Caravaggio. He points to the figures in the 1609 painting that are bathed in the artist's signature light and shadows.
"It's the manger scene during the holy night," he said. "The mother Mary has just given birth and placed the baby on the ground in the stall."
The painting "Nativity with St. Francis and St. Lawrence" isn't in a gilded frame. It sits in Gippetto's palm. It's a postcard just like the ones museum visitors pick up at the gift store - with one glaring exception.
Gippetto is dedicated to recovering stolen art - no matter how long it's been gone
Emblazoned across the top of this postcard is the word "Wanted."
Missing in action
The masterpiece has not been seen since October 16, 1969, when it disappeared from the altar of a chapel in the Sicilian capital Palermo. Gippetto is on a mission to get it back. The 44-year-old with shoulder-length hair looks like a Renaissance painter but his passion isn't for creating art, rather for recovering stolen pieces so everyone can enjoy them.
"A piece of art cannot be completely possessed," Gippetto said. "It's our cultural heritage. Our role is only to take care of it and then pass it on to future generations."
When he was just 23 years old, Gippetto founded Extroart, a group dedicated to retrieving stolen art that has been hidden in basements or warehouses or even hanging on an unsuspecting person's wall. This year's campaign focuses on the missing Caravaggio, long suspected to be in the hands of the Mafia.
A former Mafioso-turned-informant claimed in 1996 that he had stolen the work on the orders of a boss. Others say an amateur lifted it and peddled it to the Mafia.
"The Mafiosi who've turned into informants have done nothing but contradict themselves," said Gippetto. "I will believe them only when I find a person that has seen the painting and then his statement can be checked."
Theories have circulated that rats and pigs ruined it while it was stored at a farm. It could even be hidden in another country.
Fear of the Mafia
Extroart has distributed postcards of the Caravaggio painting throughout Italy and worldwide via embassies and cultural institutions. The hope is that someone somewhere will recognize the piece, which is also listed among the FBI's top ten missing artworks.
"Maybe some little old Sicilian woman has this painting and doesn't even know it," theorized Extroart volunteer Antonio Rosato. "She has it in her attic. The neighborhood boss gave it to her in a sack and said don't open until I return and he hasn't so it's just sitting there."
In Sicily, even an honest person in possession of the painting may worry that revealing its location will incite the wrath of the Mafia.
"I am convinced that one of the strengths of the organized criminals is their ability to play on the ignorance of many and also exploit their fear," said Rosato. Extroart encourages those who know of the whereabouts of a stolen painting to break the code of silence and call. No questions will be asked.
The "Wanted" postcards were designed to raise awareness of the missing painting
Art for drugs and weapons
For the art detectives, one thing is nearly certain: Mobsters' fingerprints are on the Caravaggio canvas. Organized crime has played a role in nearly every art heist since World War II. Art theft experts say they have the ideal set-up - a sophisticated network for stealing and smuggling items, forging documents and laundering cash.
Crime novels and movies fuel the theory that a dashing art thief sells the masterpiece to "a Bavarian count with a curly mustache who is in a castle full of stolen art," art theft expert Noah Charney said. Put some paint remover on that theory.
"Most stolen art is stolen either to be ransomed or to be used on a closed black market for trade or collateral between other groups of organized criminals for other illicit goods like drugs and arms," said Charney, the founding director of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art.
The thieves take in about $6 billion a year, according to the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, making art crime the third most profitable criminal enterprise behind drugs and arms trafficking.
A needle in a haystack
Those looking for the stolen art haven't had as much success.
"Retrieving stolen art is nearly impossible," Charney said. "The very best recovery rates for stolen art are about 10 percent. The more famous the work, the better the chance for recovery."
Caravaggio's nativity scene hasn't surfaced for 40 years and Extroart is convinced that the postcard campaign could help uncover its location. The group has defied the odds in the past.
A few years ago, Extroart produced postcards for the 18th-century painting "Madonna del Lume," which had been stolen from a Palermo church.
"The very next day, I received an anonymous phone call," Gippetto said."The work that we'd featured on the postcards had been delivered to the caretaker's workshop at the Sisters of Saint Vincent convent in Palermo."
Extroart is waiting for a call about the Caravaggio painting; phone lines are open and volunteers are ready.
Antonio Rosato said the thieves stole "a piece of our history."
"When we lose reminders of the past, our identity fades away," he continued. "With this campaign, we hope that we can return the Nativity to its proper home in the chapel."
Author: Nancy Greenleese
Editor: Kate Bowen